Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector, stood at Tuesday’s State of the Union, as Americans and the world heard his compelling story of starvation and abuse, and ultimately tremendous courage and perseverance that brought him to freedom. His story is heart wrenching and inspiring. President Donald Trump captured it well when he stated that “Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
The president’s decision, however, to discuss actions to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, while omitting their atrocious human rights violations, raises a significant question about the “takeaway” from Ji’s remarkable life and presence at the event.
What is compelling about Ji’s story is that he faced and overcame inhumane treatment at the hands of his own government. The fact that his abusers are also an international nuclear threat compels us to address both the dire security threat posed by North Korea, as well as the massive human rights violations in that country. And yet, Trump used this opportunity to focus only on action toward North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran was treated similarly. Trump highlighted that the United States “America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.” He should be commended for that statement and for rhetorically supporting these individuals. But his expressed concern about the people was followed by proposed action only on the Iran nuclear deal, and not on the broader question of political rights in Iran.
Security threats to the United States are paramount, and must be addressed swiftly and effectively. Similarly our global leadership role on promoting human freedom and human rights should be a cornerstone of American foreign policy. It is not only a moral imperative for a leading democracy, but it is also crucial to American and global security by checking the abuses of powers domestically and globally. The United States cannot and should not highlight human rights abuses and the plight of those who long for freedom singularly as it relates to our security threats.
The United States has long stood with those who seek the values that the president referred to numerous times in the State of the Union. In fact, all of the State of the Union speeches since 2000 have included explicit references to the United States’ global commitment to advocating for freedom globally, promoting human dignity or standing with those who are facing persecution and seek the same protections and rights that Americans enjoy. From former President George W. Bush’s 2001 commitment to “always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity” to his 2006 call for the United States to “seek the end of tyranny in our world” to former President Barack Obama’s 2014 commitment to “supporting those who are willing to do the hard work of building democracy”. And in each of these speeches where human rights and security were mentioned together, it was clearly stated that the case that promoting human rights was both the right thing to do and a policy that would enhance American security. In this era of stark partisanship, this common thread serves as a reminder of this consistent message in the State of the Union. Until now.
As we see mass atrocities being committed in South Sudan, Myanmar, and Syria, the United States cannot remain silent or lose any opportunity to reaffirm its global leadership role to advocate for those people. If we find the abuse of Ji and many like him in North Korea deplorable, we must work to prevent further abuse in North Korea and champion the freedom of others around the world.
The State of our Union may be strong, but the state of our president’s commitment to promoting the values that underpin our nation and the global system is weak, at best.
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor in the practice of international relations at Georgetown University and the chair for the global politics and security concentration in the Master of Science in foreign service program. She is the chair of the board of directors of the International Justice Mission. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.